Henry Dundas, first viscount Melville (1742–1811), lord advocate in Scotland, MP for Edinburgh and Midlothian, first lord of the admiralty, home secretary and the first secretary of state for war, was one of the most powerful politicians in the eighteenth-century British parliament. His involvement in the gradual abolition of the slave trade after 1792 was amongst the most controversial episodes of his career. His role has attracted much interest in the last few years, although there are two irreconcilable schools of thought amongst historians. This paper reassesses Dundas’s role in the gradual abolition of the transatlantic slave trade. His contributions in the houses of parliament between 1791 and 1807 are examined and situated in the appropriate imperial context. Parliamentary activities are compared with new insights from his personal correspondence as well as public and private communications from West India societies, merchants and planters. By overlaying parliamentary events with commercial networks, Dundas’s collaboration with the West India interest is revealed, and how this operated and was perceived at the time. This paper illuminates Henry Dundas’s role as a great delayer of the abolition of the slave trade.
Dr Stephen Mullen is an historian of slavery and its legacies in the British Atlantic world, with an emphasis on Scotland and the Caribbean. He is an alumnus of the Universities of Strathclyde and Glasgow, completing a PhD at the latter institution in 2015. He is the co-author of the report ‘Slavery, Abolition and the University of Glasgow’ (2018), which led to the sector-leading Reparative Justice strategy. A monograph, The Glasgow Sugar Aristocracy: Scotland and Caribbean Slavery, 1775-1838, is forthcoming with the Royal Historical Society/Institute of Historical Research New Historical Perspectives series published by University of London Press. Since 2015, Stephen has been a Postdoctoral Researcher and Lecturer in History at the University of Glasgow.
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